When Shadows Pass

by Sean English

Chapter 6

Some Roads Merge Into One (Part I)

"You guys already know some of this. Just, I know because of some stuff your Mom and Dad have hinted at and talked about already."

Jason began, deciding he should probably start with something early on. Elliot had won over his trust, enough to the point Jason knew it was time to give up the secrets that plagued him. He was unsure how he could explain it all to Elliot, why some things happened the way they did, but he was committed. At first, Jason thought it might be possible to scale some of it down, but the look and sincerity in Elliot's expression told him it was unnecessary. Elliot had already guessed a part of his narrative, so why hold out on something that didn't need hiding anymore? Jason shifted in order to get more comfortable, slowly realizing this was something he had to do. This was something he needed to do.

"You know that my Dad died, not long before school was out for this summer. I - I used to keep up with when it was. You know, the date and everything," Jason explained. "But honestly? I don't remember that anymore. It scares me sometimes, you know? When I think about it now, it seems like it was so long ago. I think about that sometimes, about how everything seemed so unreal. Sometimes, it's like it all happened in another lifetime maybe. I know better, though, but it still scares me. My own Dad - and I can't even remember exactly when he died. I know – it's weird."

Both boys were still together on the floor, but they had turned so their backs were up against the couch. Elliot sat close to Jason's side, noting that although his cousin's demeanor was now calmer, it seemed detached. It wasn't unexpected, but it was something Elliot wasn't used to hearing. He thought about reaching down and taking hold of his cousin's hand, seeing it lay freely between them, but ultimately Elliot decided against it. Regardless of how Elliot was feeling right now, he knew Jason had to be feeling a lot worse. He didn't want to complicate those feelings with his own, now that his cousin was finally opening up. So instead, he rubbed his own socked foot alongside that of Jason's in a playful manner. It was a gesture, one Elliot hoped Jason would understand, and know that he was listening. Jason felt it as he paused, and then returned the gesture.

"When Dad died," he continued, "it was all weird. I mean, I used to come home from school, you know, every day. I would get off the school bus, and he would be there on the porch, just sitting. Sometimes he was in the swing, or in his rocker, but he was always there. He would wave at me, and smile, and we would sit down, you know, and talk some. He would ask me all kinds of stuff about school that day, things like what I learned or hated, or how I did do on any tests or other stuff." He grunted. "He would sometimes ask me the stupid stuff, too - like if I got in any fights, or kissed any girls. Sheesh, like I would tell him that stuff, right?" Although there was trace of annoyance, Jason smiled weakly. "You can guess what it was like, I think. I mean, he was interested in me – and not always about school either. And believe it or not, it made me feel good most of the time, because that was just how we got along. With Mom gone so long, Dad was all I really had. Does that make sense?" When Elliot silently nodded, Jason wrinkled his nose.

"You know Elliot, you talked about being alone. For me, it was just me and Dad, and he couldn't, like, do a lot of stuff. He lost the use of one of his legs a long time ago somehow, so he was kind of limited and everything. I did a lot of stuff for us both, at least the stuff where you had to move around and everything. I mean, he did most of the cooking, but I did the dishes and vacuuming, and I did a lot of the house cleaning - stuff like that. Unless he was feeling bad, he would always be there with me – I was never alone that way. He did some of the chores, too, but there was only so much he could hold out for. He would always sit with me, though, while I finished up. He never went off on his own any, he would wait for me. 'Mama's boy stuff' some of the kids would call it, but meh, it wasn't really that bad. Just the two of us, there wasn't a lot of stuff to get dirty, other than our clothes and dishes, mostly. We watched a lot of TV, or we would listen to the radio some. He could still drive, so sometimes we'd just get out and go around town, maybe get some ice cream or go to the movies. That didn't happen a lot, but if he saw something was on in the theater that was interesting, he was usually game if I wanted to go. We just hung out, just the two of us. I guess, we just hung out a lot. I wasn't bored growing up or anything, but yeah, there were nights when things did sort of get lonesome, too. He would feel down, or his leg would give him a lot of trouble. Those were the nights when, after our chores were done, he would go his way, and I would go mine."

Again, Elliot nodded while Jason paused, visualizing in his mind what it must have been like. Elliot noticed the far-away look in his cousin's eyes before he continued. "We also didn't have a lot of visitors either. We didn't have any family that I knew of. I guess the most we had were these neighbors that lived down the road, the Coomers. They had a couple of young girls, kids I mean. They were younger than me, like eight and nine, I think. Oh, and they went to the same church where we did. We didn't really go to church that much, but when we did they were always there. They were always friendly with us, too. I mean, Dad and Mr. Coomer would talk sometimes for an hour after church, which got annoying. Aside from them though, that was about it."

"We go to church sometimes, too, but not a whole lot," Elliot offered quietly.

Jason nodded and then sighed, knowing he was rambling. Subconsciously he had gotten off track, and he needed to focus better. "Anyway, that is what life was like for us. For a long time, I guess you could say my Dad was my best friend, you know? When Dad died, though, all of that stopped, and things just got weird. I came home from school one day, and there he was on the porch, like always. He looked like he was asleep as I walked up on the porch. I remember almost leaving him alone so he could finish his nap, but I did that once before and he really got after me. He told me to always wake him up, no matter what. He had this thing about how he didn't want to sleep a day away if he fell into a nap or anything. So, that day you see, I tried and tried, but he wouldn't – he wouldn't wake up, I mean." Jason's voice suddenly grew hoarse. He paused and brushed away a tear that had escaped down his cheek.

When his cousin didn't continue, Elliot looked down and changed his mind. He figured they had already been through much worse by now, so he slowly reached out and grasped Jason's hand with his own. Locking fingers, he squeezed them gently. Jason looked down and stared, but then made no move to pull away. There was a strange comfort in that little step, and he appreciated it. When he finally looked back up, he met Elliot's eyes and continued as if nothing had changed. "I called 911, and then they came and made this big deal and everything. Then they put him on this stretcher and covered him up and – he was gone."

It was a full minute before Jason could continue again. He feared he would lose himself in that memory if he didn't take the time to recompose his thoughts. Elliot waited patiently, seeing the conflict and offering the only thing he could in return, and that was just to be there.

"I was like, always in the background when they all showed up. They asked me a question or two at first, then no one really paid much attention to me after that. At least, not until they had put him in this big ambulance and drove away. It's funny, you know? They didn't even act like I was there. I don't know why I felt that way, but it was like, I sat down on the other side of the porch and watched them. No one bothered, no one cared. They ignored me the whole time as they worked on him, even laughing sometimes, like it was a big joke. Then, when it was over and he was gone, they all just stood around, talking about other stuff, smoking, laughing, joking around. But a long time after he was gone, one of them looks over at me and goes 'Oh shit'. Then I was suddenly the center of everyone's attention. I know that is what the jerk said. I mean, you just know some things by watching, you know? They all started talking about me at once, then. If that's what you want to call it." His demeanor changed to that of cold detachment. "It was like 'What about the kid?' and all that shit. You know, more like I was suddenly a problem – and then everyone started talking about me like I wasn't there, or like I couldn't even hear them. It was all, like, I had to be somebody else's problem, not theirs. That's when one of the guys finally decided they had to call social services. Then of all the stupid idiot-like things to do, they played paper-rock-scissors to see who was going to call, and then did it again to see who was going to get stuck there waiting with me."

Elliot stared at him incredulously. "Seriously? You're not joking, right?"

Jason grunted and nodded, before he stared off into space again. "No, I'm not joking, I swear. This guy that was left, he wasn't mean or anything, but – you get the idea. He didn't want to be there with me, you know? He never tried to talk with me or anything, he just kept looking at his watch, walking around and muttering and – yeah. We had to wait a long time, and he kept getting more agitated. Finally, this lady shows up and 'collects' me, like I'm some prize or something. We didn't leave though until he had some words with her, and they got into this argument. You know, about why it took so long and everything."

Jason's shoulders drooped as he pushed himself further back into the couch. He had still yet to let go of Elliot's hand. "I went to this place, and then I was given a bed to sleep in and everything. It was kind of in a basement, I think, like the back of the jail building or something. This lady, she told me she would come back and see about me the next day, and then she just left me. Only, she didn't – come back, I mean. It was at least a couple of days later, I think, before I saw her again. See, I was put in this room, and it had a bed in it and all, but that was about it. They put me there, and then pretty much just closed the door."

Jason paused, and Elliot could tell his cousin was trying to find some sense of it all. "There I was - alone and scared, I guess. That's where I stayed pretty much until the funeral. I mean, I did get out to the bathroom, but they brought me food back from some place, and... and... that was just it. I didn't get out or anything, you know? Not that I really felt like it any, but I guess I wasn't supposed to. These guys, they wore uniforms and everything, and they didn't mind me walking around a little, just so long as I didn't go upstairs. That's what made me think I was in a jail or something, because they told me that's where the inmates were housed. So, that was all I did, really. I didn't know anything about what was happening, where my Dad was at or anything. I asked once, but one of the guys, he just shrugged and then disappeared. Anyway, that lady finally came back and picked me up one morning. She brought me these weird clothes, too. Stuff that was kind of like some of yours, like a size too big or something. They didn't look that bad, but I do remember they had a funny smell to them. Anyway, she made me wear them, and then she took me to the funeral home where Dad was at. She walked me inside, and… and then she just left me again. That's where I saw Dad for the last time, just – laying there. Like he was sleeping, except he was dressed in some really nice clothes."

Jason wiped at his eyes once again. "I remember there wasn't a lot of people there, for the funeral, I mean. Our neighbors I told you about were there, and a few people from the church, but that was about it. There was one group of men dressed up, I think like service men or something, but I didn't know them. I remember when the funeral was over, out in the cemetery they did this gun thing, shooting and stuff like you see them do on TV." Shaking his head, Jason turned to look at his cousin. "I was there pretty much alone through all of it, and ... I don't know, Elliot. I mean, I should have cried and stuff, but the whole day, I couldn't. I don't know why, but I couldn't do it. And then it was over and everything was done, you know? They put Dad in the ground and he was... just, gone."

"Those neighbors I told you about? They came around and hugged me, told me if I needed anything to let them know. You know, they were some of the nicest people we ever knew, I guess, but ... it just didn't register with me or anything. All I could do was nod and… I don't even know if I hugged them back, or if I shook hands or what. I just know that, it was over. Then that lady showed up again, out of nowhere. This time, though, she brought me this beat-up, smelly suitcase. I mean, it looked like it had been thrown in the sewer or something – and it stunk so bad. It was everything I could do to keep from throwing up! I remember asking her about it, like, where was our suitcase, mine and Dad's? I mean, we had a lot nicer one, and he had just bought it maybe, I dunno, a year ago or so. But they didn't bring that one to me. They brought me this crappy thing instead. She had a nasty look about her when I asked, and I got this sinking feeling then, Elliot, you know? I just felt like it was going to get bad."

"Why?" Elliot asked. "What did she do?"

"She slapped me, Elliot, and told me to shut up." Jason sighed again. "You know? That hurt, I mean, it stung and everything in more ways than one. But anyway, I opened it and it had some of my clothes in it, which was kind of weird, but okay. At least they looked like they were mine. So, she gives this thing to me, and tells me I'm going to be staying in a foster home. Some elderly couple outside of town, she said. And that if I knew what was good for me, I would keep my mouth shut, and do as I was told. Just like that, no questions, no nothing, just boom – like I said: everyone had this THING about me, like I was just a problem, you know?"

Jason scoffed. "They made me change clothes there in the cemetery. There wasn't a building or anything around except the church, and I wasn't allowed to go back inside. I had to change, in front of everyone. Well, sort of, I mean. There were only a few people left by then, so I got behind a van or something and did it." Jason suddenly stopped and laughed. It was a chilling sound to Elliot, one with no amusement whatsoever. "I had to give back those funny clothes, you know, the ones she brought me that morning. They were like borrowed church clothes or something, which I thought was hilarious. I mean, she brought me some of my real clothes, right? I had nice clothes, too, that she could have brought me to wear. But no, I had to wear… never mind. I had to give those back, and that was that. Then the next thing I knew, I was in the back of her car and then at the back door of this old couple's house."

"Don't get me wrong Elliot, I mean, I was grateful I guess, but back then I didn't really know any better. Everything was happening so fast, and no one, NO ONE would tell me anything about what was going on. If I asked those people at the jail, they would just shrug their shoulders and walk on. I can look back on it now and just figure, you know, it was me being in shock or something. I was just alone ... in my head, anyway. That's why when you asked me, if I knew how you felt, well..."

Elliot nodded. "I understand, Jase, honest."

Jason paused, trying to decide how to get proceed. "She never really introduced us or anything, which was really funny to me. She just knocked on the door, see, and when they answered, she said 'Here he is'. Then she just turned around and left, without saying another word. I thought that was weird, you know? She didn't say, 'Jason this is Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So', or even tell them my name. And these people, they didn't like, even introduce themselves or anything to me either, you know? I think it was 3 or 4 days later I even found out their names! But anyway, from then on, I was always just called 'boy' – that was all they cared about. They brought me inside, and then showed me to a room, a place to sleep. It was just, you know, a room. No windows or even a closet." Jason sighed in sudden exasperation. "I don't know how to describe it. I mean, this house, it was a big house. It had two floors and a basement, with three or four big bedrooms and everything upstairs. No one else lived with them, either. This place they put me in though, it wasn't one of those bedrooms. Instead I guess it was more like a storage room or something. Like I said, no windows, the ceiling was kind of low, and it had just enough room to fit a twin bed in it, kind of like your brother's bed. I mean, I had enough space to crawl up one side mostly, but that was it. There was no other furniture or anything, not even a place for me to put my clothes."

He sighed again. "I didn't want to complain, not really – but it was just all so different, and I felt like I was, I don't know, helpless. It's not that I really expected anything better, either. I mean heck, I was an orphan, right? I was just starting to process some of what had happened those last few days, and I was beginning to understand like, I really had nobody anymore. Nobody at all."

As he paused, Jason squeezed the hand he was holding. "I heard stories from kids at school about orphans, see? There was this one girl, a grade ahead of me, who tried to commit suicide once, but she got caught just in time. Until then I never realized I could become one, but then I did. All this stuff I had heard about came back to me. About how bad they had it in their families and everything. In America, see, orphans have no rights or anything. They're just wards of the state and all that crap. Sometimes you might get lucky and get into a boys' home, or girls might get into a girls' home, like that. But most of those are overcrowded and everything. So, the rest of us are thrown into foster homes. Does that make any sense? And it was hitting me, kind of hard just then. This man and woman, they were like demons from hell and everything. The way they talked down to me, the way they looked at me - it was like crap! And I just knew it then. I just knew my life was going to be shit from then on."

"Anyway, when they gave me this ... room, I already had a bad feeling about everything. And... yeah, if there ever were two people who made sure I knew it, it was them. This man, he told me to put that stupid, smelly suitcase in the garbage so he would never have to see it again. It was one of the first things about him I remember from that day. He bitched constantly about how God-awful the thing smelled, like it was my fault or something. Then he started razing me about how awful my clothes were, too. Then it was my hair, and... and... He just never shut up. I did throw the thing away, but even though it was outside, in this dumpster thingy and away from the house, he... he..." Jason stopped to take a deep breath before continuing slower. "He would swear I was bringing it back in and carrying it through the whole house, just so I could to torment THEM. I would tell him I didn't, but it didn't matter. He would always slap me and call me a liar."

Elliot shivered at that point. "Sheesh, Jase!"

Surprisingly, Jason just shrugged. "I mean, what the heck – I didn't have anything to do with it. The thing wasn't even mine to start with, you know? But to him, it didn't matter – he hated it, he hated me, he hated my being there – everything from the start you know? To him I was about as worthless as dog shit. And the lady, his wife I guess, she would just stand back and laugh sometimes. She wasn't any better." Jason grunted, "Sorry, I don't mean to be so..."

"Bitchy?" Elliot offered, smiling. Jason offered a rare smile in return. "It's funny Jase, hearing you swear and stuff like that. It's not like you, but right now? I honestly don't give a fuck..."

Jason giggled. "I don't give a fuck either, not really," he whispered. He was back to staring at the floor again, before squeezing Elliot's hand in gentle acknowledgment. "So anyway, that first day, they dragged me into the kitchen where they had this 'list' on the table. It was a long list of jobs and chores, stuff they wanted me to do. The old man told me I would have to do it, or else. When I just stared at it, he got tired of waiting and started yelling at me again. 'Get a move on you fucking jack-ass', or something like that."

"Wait a minute," Elliot interrupted. "These were supposed to be your foster parents, right? Didn't they like, have responsibilities and stuff to take care of you and everything? And cripes Jason, you had just got there, right after your own Dad's funeral! Right? I mean, get real!"

Jason reflected before shrugging again. "That's just the way it was, Elliot. I'm not exaggerating, I promise. Every day, they would have these lists made out for me with these jobs and everything. Some were easy ones, some took hours to get through. I never went back to school again that year, since there were only a couple of weeks left anyway. These people just put me to work, mostly from the moment I woke up until I went to bed at night. The old man threatened me every day. I mean, if I didn't do their jobs, and work and stuff, I didn't get anything. They meant it, too. There were some days... I mean the list was so long... if I didn't finish it or do something good enough, you know, I really did get nothing."

Elliot's eyes widened suspiciously. "How do you mean?"

Jason shrugged his shoulders. "Well, when I did everything by the end of the day, as long as it was mostly okay, I always found a sandwich or some cold soup and crushed up crackers, or something on my bed at night. Some mornings, if I was lucky, I would get a banana or something, too, as long as I wasn't taking the last one or anything. I never got any real breakfast or anything, not like cereal or the stuff we have here. There were days I had to wash their dishes, and they had all these big breakfasts and everything. You know, like eggs and sausage or bacon, biscuits – all that. The woman, she liked to tell me they couldn't afford to waste any of that stuff on me, you see? Waste it." Jason's faraway look returned. "And yet I caught them lots of times giving a lot of it afterwards, leftovers and stuff, to the dog. Waste it." He shook his head. "Lots of days I didn't get any food at all during the day, unless I sneaked some. I guess I could have water almost anytime I needed it, because they never got after me for getting any from the sink. That is, if I didn't take a long time doing it. But yeah, you can guess the rest – if I didn't get things like they wanted, well... nothing."

Elliot whistled. "Damn Jason! You mean they … they, like, practically starved you then? Shit! How long? I mean, how long did that bloody crap go on?"

A far-away look fell as Jason thought about that. "I don't know exactly. I know it lasted most of the summer. I sneaked food when I could, but yeah. I went maybe a day every week without getting anything from them, but that was about the worst of it I think. If I was careful, some nights I could sneak some things every so often, if I didn't get caught. Especially if I was washing their dinner dishes and everything. If I did get caught, I was just yelled at and slapped around some more, so I learned to be careful." He shook his head. "When school started again, in early August, that kind of changed anyway. I mean, it was the first break I really had from the assholes. That's why I say it, why I think they just didn't care, you know? They never talked with me, or let me talk to anyone else for that matter – they just had their 'list' and their 'work'. Even when it was time to go back to school, they didn't tell me until the night before. Of course, there was the usual threats to keep my mouth shut and everything, too. They were always on my case, though, so it was nothing new. Oh, and supplies? They always told me I wasn't worth it." Jason laughed. "The old man did give me a pencil once – a broken pencil, that is." He shook his head. "They were both always throwing insults and everything at me, anyway."

"What do you mean?" Elliot asked softly.

"Well, they called me names a lot, like 'lazy ass' or 'bum-fucker', stuff like that. It's like they got a kick out of it, you know? Putting me down all the time or trying to rile me up, that kind of crap was like a game to them. I think they tried to find new ways, too, because they would try to out-do the other when they were pulling that crap." Seeing the surprise in Elliot's face, he shrugged. "It doesn't matter, Elliot. School was my escape – because they knew they couldn't get to me through there, and they knew I had to go. So, they tried to make that as much like hell as they could. Get this: they never gave me any money or anything for lunch or breakfast, always telling me I wasn't worth it." He suddenly grinned. "I got lucky though. See, we had this program thing over there, one that you can sign up for. You could get free lunch and stuff. I brought the forms in to them, you know, papers that would let me get on the roll for free and all. They wouldn't sign them, though. Told me that I was too much of a lost cause for any of that shit, and they would never let a whore like me steal from decent, honest paying taxpayers unless I cleaned up my act first."

"Are you kidding me??!! No - fucking - way!" Elliot exclaimed in disbelief.

Jason grinned at him. "Like I said, I didn't have to fight that battle though. Turns out somehow the school had a record of me being under state care and everything, so I was already on the list. I got free breakfasts, and lunches, and everything. So, the assholes never knew it. I ate stuff at school a lot better than I did at home at nights. Not that it was always that great, but compared to what I had been getting all summer, you know?" He giggled. "It's probably the only good thing I had going for me Elliot, but man..."

"I bet," Elliot whispered politely, squeezing the hand he held gently.

Jason returned the gesture before he continued. "I wish I could say things got better, but honestly? They really didn't. After school started and everything, things got worse for me - especially after I got home. The old man started yelling at me even more than usual, every day, because he said I always smelled like nothing but sex." Jason rolled his eyes and his mouth dropped open a couple of times before he could continue. "I mean - what the hell, right? I have no flipping clue where it all came from. They accused me of everything Elliot, jerking off on my clothes every night, or peeing on them or some other kind of crap like that. I never did any of it, I swear! There were nights I went to my room though, and it would smell so bad in there. It was like someone did come in and … and piss on everything. It might have been the dog, I don't know, but it wasn't me. Sometimes it would stink so bad, I even wanted to get out. He wouldn't let me though." Elliot noticed as Jason paused, his cousin's face screwed up in fury. "He told … he told me if I had the gall to stink it up like piss and worse, I should have to live in it just the same. They made sure I stayed in there with it, too. They always made like I did it so they would have to go buy me more clothes, or some other shit like that. They made it clear, though, they were not going to spend one dime on a lost cause like me." Jason had to stop then, as tears started falling down his cheek. Elliot wanted to hold him, but something held him back.

Jason sat quietly for the moment, and Elliot started to think about some of the things that had been beaten down on his cousin. It began to make sense. Things around the parts of his body, or the worry of the cost of everything. It was negligible, but if Jason had to live through all of that, constantly and every day, it was reasonable that, after time, it would have adverse effects. Elliot started to feel uneasy, too. Maybe some of the things he had been pushing, wasn't such a good idea after all.

Elliot was brought out of his reverie though, when Jason sniffed and composed himself again. "I always had to wash my own clothes, sometimes two or three times in a night, just to get the stink out. It was always a game though. I mean, it was bad Elliot. Up until then I was just, you know, lost and confused and everything because, at first, it just got to me, okay? Like, I was thinking that maybe I really was nothing but trouble, and worthless, and... and all that stuff. It really got me down, and I think they just soaked up all the misery. It was like the more miserable they could make me, the more they kept piling it on. And like I said, for a while, I started believing them." Jason coughed at that point, and then his demeanor changed. "But I didn't always stay that way, I promise. I mean, after all this new stuff started up after school, I kind of started getting numb to it. That was when I realized it was just all a game. I started to get mad, and then they found out they couldn't scare me as much anymore."

"Shit Jase, I had no idea," Elliot confessed.

"I know. Nobody did, really. I mean, who would believe me anyway, if I told them?" Jason said helplessly.

There was such a long pause that Elliot finally whispered, "I would have."

Jason looked ahead, as if staring into a void. "Yeah, maybe. But that's only because you know me now. Back then, nobody knew me Elliot. Nobody cared."

"Didn't that social worker or anyone ever check up on you? Anyone at all?" Elliot asked.

Jason scoffed. "That was a funny thing. Supposedly yeah, but they never seemed to come or show up while I was there. That lady, whoever she was, always seemed to supposedly show up while I was away doing stuff, or while I was at school or something. I never saw anyone come, not the whole time I was there. Not in the summer, or in the fall or anytime. I do remember once, I overheard the old man and women talking about how there was supposed to be a visit scheduled like, the next day or something. I got the idea it was from them, you know, the social worker people. I kind of got excited and everything, you know? So, I went to bed that night, thinking about what I wanted to tell them and everything."

"But the next morning, that old bastard made me go into town with him," Jason continued. "We did a bunch of senseless crap at a lumber mill that took, like, hours! When we got back, nobody was there. So, I asked the old woman about the visitor we were supposed to get. I even played nice, making sure the old bastard was outside. You know, just asked her nice and everything. You should have seen her, though. She got red in the face and angry like … well, just mad. She accused me of eavesdropping on them, butting my nose into business that didn't concern me, and all that crap. She started going off, and yelling, and screaming and stuff, so loud it made the old man come running into the kitchen. Then when he heard what it was all about, they both started laying in on me together. Just constant yelling and screaming. Then I finally got to throw some of it back at them. I asked them how could it not concern me? I mean, the visit was for me and everything, right? All that earned me was another slap by the old man, for what he called backtalking. THEN he slapped me again and said it was all my own fault anyway. If I hadn't been so bum fucking lazy and slow at the mill, then I would have made it back in time, if I had really wanted to see her. I was like, what-the-fuck, and then he really let me have it..." Jason took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Elliot involuntarily shuddered. "They beat you, then. A lot." The response was a statement, not a question. He shook his head and took a long breath. "That's just... insane, Jase."

Jason smiled, however, before he continued. "Anyway, when I was in school, like I said, I was away from them for part of my day at least, so I got a break. But I couldn't make friends or anything, see. Because it was a different school and all, and as soon as the kids found out I was an orphan, that was it. Don't get me wrong, they were never mean to me or anything. But – you know how it is, how kids just kind of avoid you and everything. They look at you like you're all different. Maybe they don't intend to, but they treat you different, too. Not bad – but different. So yeah, I was kind of alone again."

"I'm sorry," Elliot offered. "God, I wish I hadn't let on thinking or accusing you of not knowing what it felt like. I swear, I wouldn't have done that to you if I had known this."

Jason smiled. "What? About being alone? I admit, it was weird, but it was okay. The way I look at it, at least I got to eat breakfast and lunch, and like I said, I got away from the horror house during the week." He settled himself back into the sofa. "You don't need to be sorry, Elliot. You and me, we have different definitions about being alone, but I think we both know what it feels like, in a weird sort of way."

Elliot nodded. "What about when you had to go back? I mean, after school?"

Jason's expression grew darker. "It was always the same. There was that stupid, fucking list, usually with a lot of jobs on it. Some stuff was the same, over and over, but there was also new stuff on it, too. I had to do everything before I went to bed that night, too, no matter how long it took me. I mean, sometimes that list was long, and it was like, 11 or 12 at night before I would get it done. Most of the time, when I got finished, there was the usual sandwich or whatever waiting for me. Either the old man or his wife, if not both, would always stay up until I got finished, too. No matter what. And if it started getting late, they would start grumbling and start yelling at me to get off my lazy ass and everything, you know? I mean, it was all so stupid..."

"Why didn't you just leave then?" Elliot asked, and then regretted it because he realized how dumb it sounded.

"Where was I going to go, Elliot? I mean, I had no rights. The State decided things for me and everything, and right then the State had me placed to stay with them, probably for the rest of my life. At least, until I was old enough I could get out on my own. Yeah, I know – stupid, right? These people were supposed to be my 'substitute' parents - but it was all a joke. I mean, other than being smacked a few times, up until then they never hurt me that much physically, and... and... for all I knew, I could be leaving them just to get into something worse. You know, another house, another place that could have been worse than that one."

"Not hurt you? Are you bloody insane?" Elliot exclaimed, and then shook his head. "Okay, I'm sorry, I understand, but dude ... That's just crazy, the way they treated you..." He looked up and keenly observed how, once again, Jason had become so detached from it all. "So, basically they made you a slave or something. What was that like, anyway? I mean, what kind of stuff did they put on these lists and everything?"

Jason shrugged. "Sometimes painting, cleaning toilets, bathtubs, sinks; washing dishes, sweeping and vacuuming the whole house; cleaning windows, scrubbing tile, washing clothes, dusting, drying, ironing. That was the one that got me in the most trouble. I could never iron very good, not enough to satisfy the old woman at least, especially at first. And she never tried to teach me or help me learn or understand it either. I mean, even at home, Dad always took care of that one for us. I didn't have a clue how to do it anyways, you know? But she didn't care, and that's how I ended up without food those days I couldn't satisfy her. Oh, and the dog they had? It would poop and pee all over the place, and I... yeah, I had to always clean up after it. And if it did its business on the carpet, I'd have to scrub the carpet hard to get the piss and poop out of it and all." He sighed. "Anyway, that was the inside stuff I did. Outside was different. It was summer, you know? Mostly they made me do yard and garden stuff, mowing, racking up loose grass, weeding, digging a ditch, putting up a fence, painting gates and more stuff, climbing up and fixing the roof over the garage and shed, moving trees and bushes around the yard, washing and scrubbing down the porch and sidewalk, cleaning gutters around the house, washing their car and vacuuming it out-"

Elliot's eyes were bulging. "Holy shit!"

Jason nodded. "Even when school started, I still had all this stuff inside and outside to do and everything, some of it every week. I mean, it was chores, and I'm not complaining about that part of it. But, it was always hard stuff, and it was constant, you know? You couldn't rest, or take a break for anything, because if he caught me, he'd be all over me again yelling and screaming. It was hot most days, you know, lots of days in the 90's or near a 100. So, for a while I would go without a shirt outside. But then they started making me wear this thick, long-sleeve shirt and stuff. Told me how indecent it was to be doing what I was doing. That the neighbors complained about seeing me naked and everything outside and stuff. Which was a lie, because they didn't have any neighbors. Not really, anyway. The closest people to them were probably a half mile or more down the road."

"It's… wow, it's unbelievable they did that to you…" Elliot exclaimed.

"When school started back," Jason continued, "most nights I was too tired to do any homework or anything, so my grades fell. I tried to talk to them about it a couple of times, but that's when it really started getting worse. I mean, they didn't care, and if I pleaded or asked for anything, anything at all, all it got me was a slap in the face. I was told, quote 'shut the fuck up' most of the time, that 'their stuff came first, or else.'"

"Or else - what?" Elliot asked, incredulously.

Jason shrugged. "I don't know. Don't you see, Elliot? Like I said, they didn't care if I was failing school or anything. In fact, they always laughed about it. They told me repeatedly if I wasn't so stinking lazy, or such a bottom class loser, well – you know what I mean. I mean, think about this: a couple of my teachers would send notes home, and they would get them and read them and just laugh at me and tear them up. You know, throw them in the trash and stuff. Sometimes it was worse. If the old man was in one of his moods, he would pull his belt off and whap me a few times. He'd yell at me, then tell me to get to work and laugh about it all, you know? Then there was this one time they got a call from the school. I was cleaning up their dishes in the kitchen, so I could hear a lot of what was said." Jason sighed. "They just lied their ass off. You know, told them they had been getting after me to do better, or to do my homework and everything. Oh, and of course, the lazy excuse, too. They would end up telling my teachers they would take care of it, that sort of stuff. Then when the old man hung up the phone, he would go into this rage and slap me hard again. I swear, I felt like my head rolled into the next county. He was so pissed that night..."

There was another change in Jason's tone now, and as he reflected on those events, Elliot noted the distant far-away look again. "Elliot, he always told me if I wasn't such a dumb-shit, I would do better anyway. He talked about all the times when he was in school, how they never had to bring homework home or deal with any of that shit. As far as he was concerned, anyone who had to do that stuff now was just asking for trouble, and he'd give them what they're asking for, no excuses, no matter who it was. He'd yell at me a lot of times and tell me I must have been one of the sorriest, lazy-assed fucking whores he had ever seen in his life." Jason turned to stare at Elliot, and what followed was delivered so coldly, it sent a chill through Elliot's spine. "He threatened me, that if he ever had to talk or listen to one of those so-called mother-fucking teacher-heathens again, he would teach me a thing or two about what discipline really meant. And he promised it would be a lesson I would never, ever forget."

"Holy shit, Jase... I mean... shit!" Elliot cried softly in disbelief. "I don't see how you could take it, fuck!"

It was then Jason relaxed. "Like I said, I wasn't dumb. I used to do really good in school for the most part, but these were new teachers then, and they threw a lot of homework on us, you know? There was no way I could do it all at school, or on the bus or anything. I mean, unlike you guys, we had school buses to get us from home to school in the mornings, and back in the afternoons. Each way was about a 30-minute ride or so, and our particular bus was way overcrowded. There was never enough room for everyone, so a lot of us had to stand up for a bit. So anyway, I tried to do stuff late at night, you know, after I got done with everything else. We had books to read, and reports to write, and pages and pages of math problems. Oh, and all sorts of science stuff, too. That worked for about a week, but then I started falling asleep in class. I mean, we're talking about me going to sleep maybe 1:30 to 2:00 in the morning, and then getting up at 6:00, just so I could get a quick shower and get out the door. I don't know – I think I did the best I could Elliot. I mean, I slept on the bus sometimes, but... I was tired, and after a while it just caught up to me. Anyway, once they heard about that, me falling asleep in class I mean, then the old fart made sure each night, after I finished my chores and everything, that the lights were off."

"You mean, he turned the lights off on you?" Elliot asked.

Jason shook his head. "No, worse. He killed the electric to my room some way. I tried to use a flashlight, but he caught me with it after a couple of nights and... Well, see what I mean? And every morning he would start banging on the door to get me up, lots of times just in time to run out to catch the bus. No shower, no nothing."

"Jase, that's..." Elliot breathed in shock. "That's just wrong! It's... it's abuse, you know? You knew that, right?"

Jason nodded. "I know it was, at least I know it now. But back then, Elliot... well, everything was just out of control. I didn't know how to get out of it. I didn't know how to get out of there, you know? I mean, I knew of one way, but..."

"What do you mean?" Elliot asked cautiously.

Jason gave him a knowing look. "I think you could figure that one out if you wanted," was all he said, and after a moment a look of pure horror crossed Elliot's face.

"No!"

Jason looked to the floor. "Yeah. I did think about it a few times, but..." He shrugged. "I guess maybe, I don't know. Maybe I just thought it was my punishment or something."

"Fuck no! Damn, FUCK NO! How – HOW could you ever think that Jason? HOW?" Elliot cried out.

Seeing Elliot upset, Jason squeezed the hand that still held onto him. "Elliot, you have to remember, that was then; it's not now. Besides, I know better now, okay? It's not like I would commit suicide for the sake of anything, but back then – it was just bad. I was ready to give up, because to me the world was just screwing with me anyway. That's what I felt like sometimes, especially after that crazy bastard would go on his warpath or something. I can't tell you what it's like any more than this." His voice softened further. "This is a part of why I didn't want to tell you this stuff in the first place. It was just – bad. Understand?"

Elliot stared for a long time before visibly relaxing. "Fuck Jase, how did you ever get away then? You DID get away, right? I mean, you're here and... and..."

A long silence engulfed the two. Jason stared off into space, focusing nowhere in particular as his thoughts collected again. "Yeah," he finally replied, the dispassionate tone returning. "It was this one weekend see, and one of my teachers, Mrs. Edwards, she pulled me aside on Friday. She told me that if I didn't pass a test that was coming up the next week, she might have to fail me for the semester. That's how bad my grades and everything were getting. That got me really worried. I mean, up till then, the worst I had really lived with was just a few slaps and stuff, I suppose for mostly little things. But if I failed in class, I mean..." He paused again before he continued. "So, when I got home that day, there was the list like always and everything, but it seemed to me like it was, you know, way longer than usual. I got mad, because... well..."

"Because you couldn't do anything about it, because you were being treated like shit and being used like a slave. And THAT meant you couldn't do work for school or else fail, which would mean..." Elliot offered the observation, but only realized the significance of it once he said it aloud.

Jason nodded. "I did do it though, the list - all of it. It took me two crappy days to finish it, but I, like, really pushed myself crazy. I mean, I worked harder and faster than I had ever done things before, and when Sunday afternoon came I finished it. Every stupid thing, every one of them, you know? I was even kind of proud of myself – although I have no idea why. I knew it was never good enough most of the time, you see? So anyway, I get my stuff and go to my room and everything, shut the door, you get the idea. I don't remember what time it was, like maybe 4:00 or 5:00 I guess? It was still early enough though, I could at least study for a while and maybe have a chance. You know, to do some good and everything."

Jason hesitated, thinking back. "Anyway, I started studying and everything, but then the old bastard bangs on the door. He's mad, practically tearing it down the way he was hitting it. At first, I figured there must have been something I didn't do good enough, you know? Well, I answer opened the door, see, and then he grabs my t-shirt and drags me out. Usually he was pissed for some reason when he did that"

"He's done it more than once?" Elliot asked.

"Oh, yeah. Anyway, he drags me into the bathroom, and tells me to start doing something else. I think it was something about scrubbing the tile, or tub, or... heck, I don't even know anymore. I just remember it was something I had already done earlier that week, and I knew it would take me a long time to do it again. Besides, it looked fine to me, probably cleaner than it had ever for years. So, I looked at him and his smug little expression, and I knew it. I guess I had always known it, but it just seemed like then it sunk in, you know? They wanted nothing but to keep me miserable, keep me in as much pain as they could create. All they wanted was to make sure I just stayed out of their way and everything. At the same time, though, they didn't want me to have any time to myself at all – period."

"Sounds to me like it was a lot more than that," Elliot responded when Jason stopped to take a deep breath. "So, what happened next?" he asked, when it seemed Jason was once again lost in thought.

"Well, I just stood there mostly. He told me to get started and everything, and I – I just couldn't do it anymore. I told him 'no'. It wasn't the first time I ever did that, but … I don't know, it was just different, you know? This time he got real pissed again and everything. He started yelling at me, and I think I tried to tell him why and everything, but he wasn't interested. If anything, it made him more pissed. He demanded I get to work, and I just said 'no' again, and... and from there, it gets kind of fuzzy Elliot. I mean, I don't remember a lot after that. I just remember him hitting me again, punching me, slapping me – things like that. He was strong. I mean, really physically strong. I remember seeing him hit his wife once, and she went down onto the floor like a sack of potatoes he just tossed across the room. I remember when he hit me that day, it knocked me across the room too, and into the wall. It was… it was bad. I think I looked up at him and told him to go to hell."

Seeing Elliot's expression, Jason hurriedly went on. "You got to understand, Elliot. I really don't remember a whole lot after that. I do know he yelled at me, kicked me, and slapped me some. He told me to do what he said, or there would be hell to pay. Thing was, I think hell would have been a vacation compared to what they were both putting me through, you know?"

"Shit," Elliot muttered under his breath. The tale was so incredulous, but as he watched Jason, he knew it had to be the truth. There was a certain eeriness that Elliot felt no one could ever make up. More than anything else though, it was the little signs, the emotional way in which his cousin delivered it. It made Elliot feel it inside, as he imagined what the grisly scene must have been like that day. It was enough to make him inwardly shudder.

Jason nodded. "Yeah, I think I did that, too." Looking at Elliot, he smiled at the inside joke before continuing. "Seriously; I think he kicked me so hard I may have pooped my pants or something. There's this thing in my head that sort of remembers he was disgusted with that, so he dragged me back to my room and threw me on my bed, before slamming the door and locking it. I was so beaten and bloody though, by then it didn't matter. All I could do was cry like a baby. I hurt all over, I had bruises and blood and ... I just couldn't move or anything, not for a long time." Jason stopped to take another deep breath. "Everything for the next few hours is just kind of hazy, you know? I think I fell asleep for a while, but I had no idea how long or anything."

Elliot nodded. "It's okay Jase, I believe you. Sheesh, I doubt I would remember anything either if I had to go through all that."

After a moment, the tone of Jason's voice changed. "What I do remember was, sometime during the night I got up and I was able to somehow get out of my room. All I had on was my dirty clothes from that day. Some of them were bloodied, and muddy or whatever, but that was it. I got out of my room and left what little I had behind, you know? I had to get out… just, get away. Anyway, I got out of the house, and then I started to run - if you can call it running. I just moved as fast as I could, anywhere to get away. When I made it down the road, I remember thinking there were some hills and trees and everything off in one direction, so I took off in what I thought would get me there."

"I got into the woods, and I have no idea how far I traveled, I just know it was a long time before I found this thing, like a shed or something," Jason continued. "It was camouflaged, like a lean-to that hunters use I guess, when they're hunting deer or whatever. Anyway, it was empty, and I ended up staying in it for a long time, maybe a week or two. I mean, I really had no idea how much time passed. I didn't have a watch or anything, and ... I just know there were a lot of days the sun rose up in the morning and then went down at night."

"Sheesh, Jason! How did you eat or anything?" Elliot asked incredulously.

"I found a stream, not too far from this place, so I got plenty of water. I was able to, you know, clean up and stuff, too. The water, it was cool, but not outright cold. I would strip down and just lay down in this one place, sometimes for hours, I think. I mean, the water was clean, and… and… Well, it was good enough, anyway. I got most of the blood washed out of my clothes, and had plenty to drink and everything, you know? But I was limping, and so sore and everything. I couldn't get around all that good for a few days. I don't think anything was broken, but ... I dunno, everything just hurt." Jason laughed just then, but the sound was hollow coming from his lips. "I was kicked in the balls, I remember that much now, because it made me have problems with, like, peeing and stuff. Yeah, that creep did a trick on me..."

Elliot shuddered but remained quiet while Jason continued. "Anyway, as for food, I'm not sure. I mean it, I really don't remember a lot. I do remember there was this farm I found, and I was able to steal some stuff from their garden. Kind of like rabbits and other animals do, I guess. At least I could find a few things. But it was getting late in the summer, see. Garden stuff, well, there wasn't a lot left to grow by then, you know? Mostly just some potatoes, but I found other things, too. Oh yeah, I do remember something else, too! There was some canned food and stuff that somebody had left it in that shelter. Nothing that great, but hey, there was pork-n-beans, and some soup – stuff that was a lot better than nothing at all! I even found a can opener they left behind. So, I think I did okay, at least for a while."

Elliot whistled as he sat back. "Dude, this is ... I don't know...."

Jason suddenly smiled at him. "I told you, it's bad. Are you sure you want me to keep going?" he asked grimly.

"You stop now and I'll never forgive you," Elliot said softly.

"I know you wouldn't. But I have to warn you – it gets worse Elliot. Even after all this."

"No way! Seriously?" Elliot was already on the verge of his own tears welling up, but he defiantly shook his head. "I don't care, I want to know," he whispered.

Jason took a deep breath. "Like I said, I stayed in this shed for a while. When I started feeling better and stuff, you know, walking better and get around and everything, I knew I couldn't stay. Besides, I ran out of food, and there just wasn't anything else much I could do around there. I was getting hungry again, so one morning I left, and just started walking. I have no idea where, or how far, I went - or how long. I just put the sun to my back in the morning, and tried to follow a reasonable path West, you know? I kept going and going, like that battery commercial on TV. You know, the bunny?"

Clearly Elliot didn't understand the reference, so Jason just grunted and let it pass. "Never mind. Anyway, I remember trying to not run around in circles or anything. I finally got to this town somewhere, and like I said, I was hungry, starving more like it. Umm, I don't remember a lot there either, just that I remember finding some food in some dumpsters and other places. I know..." Jason hurriedly went on once he saw the sickening look that crossed Elliot's features. "It wasn't the best or anything, full of germs and crazy stuff for all I knew... Even gross, but..."

"I'm sorry. I know, I mean, I understand..." Elliot intervened.

Jason nodded as he lowered his gaze to the floor again. He fell silent for a long time until Elliot squeezed his hand. "Jason?" The prompt was so soft, his cousin almost did not hear it.

"It's okay, just remembering some stuff, that's all." Jason sighed deeply. "Wherever I was, the town I mean, I remember it was bigger than I thought. I mean, when I started exploring and stuff, I found a lot of hiding places I could stay. Then there was this park, too, where I liked to go sometimes. I could sit on the benches, or sit in the swings, or other stuff for hours. And I remember all these cops and people coming by at different times of the day. No one paid any attention to me being there though. I mean, I wasn't in school and … and who knows, you know? It was funny – they didn't care, or anything. They just all ignored me."

"Jase, why didn't you go talk to the police or something?" Elliot asked.

"And do what? Tell them I was a runaway? And an orphan, on top of that?" Jason shook his head. "Because all they would do was turn me back over to social services again. I wasn't going to go back – no matter what. For all I knew, they could put me back in that hell hole again." He grunted. "Elliot, if I ever got caught and was forced to go back, I would have honestly killed myself. At least, if I couldn't escape. I mean before, I knew better, but if that was what was going to happen again, then I would have said fuck with it and just checked out."

For a moment, a look of alarm crossed Elliot. Although still dispassionate, that was the second time Jason had broached that topic. Was there a vein of suicide he should be watching in his cousin? He didn't think so. He heard the resoluteness in Jason's voice, but given the time and the circumstances, maybe it was different. Inwardly it made a shiver run down Elliot's spine once again. "Don't... don't say stuff like that, okay?"

Jason looked up and smiled. "Don't worry. I told you, I'm not one of those suicidal freaks, and I mean it. I have to tell you though, back then... like I said, it was bad – bad enough that I really do think I might have done it in the end. If it came down to it, and I couldn't see any way out, then yeah. I wasn't going to go back, Elliot. Period." He sighed. "So anyway, like I said, cops didn't care, nobody really noticed me – so after a while I thought I was pretty safe. People were always eating in the park, too, and you'd be surprised the stuff they throw away. Seriously, even clean stuff, like sandwiches cut in half, only half eaten. Or apples, or other fruit. So yeah, for a while, I wasn't that bad off…"

"Okay, so, then what happened?" Elliot asked cautiously.

Jason squirmed. "Elliot, it was – it was bad. Are you sure you want to hear what's left? I mean, this stuff I've told you, it's bad enough, but-"

"You promised, and I swore to you, cross my heart. Don't stop now, please? Finish this..." Elliot added.

Jason studied his cousin for a moment before sighing. "Listen, this is the stuff that gives me my nightmares, and I know what you're saying, but... I really don't want you having them, too. I'm just scared."

"Scared of what, though?" Elliot asked gently. "You're here now, you're safe, you're with me, and you're on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. No one is hurting you anymore, right?"

Jason thought about that before hanging his head. "I- Okay, I get that, but… I'm also afraid of what you might think of m-me. I mean, afterwards."

Elliot sat up and squeezed the hand again. As the events had unfolded, all this time neither had broken their grasp. "Do you still trust me?" he whispered. When Jason nodded, Elliot smiled back. "Then there is nothing you could tell me that would make me feel any different about you. I promise."

Jason sat for a full minute, doubt and fear plaguing him. Searching Elliot's expression, he finally nodded and took a deep breath. "I was in the park one night, Elliot," he continued. "It was late, the sun had already gone down, but it wasn't, like, completely dark yet. That was the best time to look for food, see? They didn't have a lot of lights or anything, and it was easy to stay in the shadows and all. Anyway, there was these two men. I don't know how old they were, just that they were older, maybe in their 40s. I never saw them before, unless I might have seen them earlier that day, hanging around the park, like me. They even sort of looked like I did, you know, just drifters I guess. They were rough looking, wore old clothes with holes in them, and they were dirty, and stinky, and nasty - everything you can imagine, I guess. If it hadn't been for the smell, well... when they started getting close to me I would have gotten out of there, as far away as I could. But – I was cold, Elliot, and I was hungry. I was depressed – and I was getting weak again. I guess I was getting desperate."

Jason visibly shivered, and Elliot leaned in closer – a gesture which seemed to calm his cousin. In his mind, Elliot started to visualize what was about to come out, and he inwardly cried, fearing what Jason was going to tell him next. Jason shifted and turned toward his cousin more directly. "There's not a lot more than what you can't probably already figure out," he whispered. "At first, they just started talking to me, asking me stupid questions and stuff. Then they jumped me, pulled me off into some bushes and beat me up, ripped my clothes off ... stripped me n-naked." Pausing and finding no change in Elliot's demeanor, he charged ahead. "I tried to fight. I mean, I'm not a bad fighter, you know? I can defend myself and stuff, but they... they... I was weak, I didn't have hardly anything left in me by then, see? And… and… then one of them tried to do it, you know, tried to... tried to shove his dick up my ass."

Elliot's compassion was overwhelming. As he watched, another tear fell down Jason's cheek, and Elliot found himself doing the same. "Did you get away?" Elliot asked softly, holding his breath.

Jason shook his head. When he didn't continue, Elliot put the rest of it together. It also made him reflect on what had happened the night before, when the two had gone to bed. He remembered falling asleep, snuggled into Jason's back, and that his groin had stirred for a time - right in the unluckiest of places. Elliot realized what those feelings must have sent through his cousin. "Oh shit..." he exclaimed quietly, screwing up his face. "I'm sorry, Jase. About last night…" Understanding it now created a huge, gut wrenching hole in his stomach. This was why Jason was so hesitant and uneasy - about a lot of things, when it came to guys. "Shit, oh shit… I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Jase. I pushed you into ... into everything between us... I just, I wish..."

Jason, however, looked up and smiled. "Don't be, Elliot. I knew what I was doing, and believe me, I trust you far more than anyone I've ever trusted in my life, especially that way. It wasn't the same thing, and you know it." He grunted. "You know, in a way, maybe... maybe it's what I needed anyway. Last night, I mean. I don't want to grow up being a prude, and I don't want to be afraid and stuff. Especially with you." Jason paused, opened his mouth to continue, but closed it again. He struggled to find the words he wanted. When he did speak, it was no longer the dispassionate voice Elliot heard, but one of anguish and hurt. "It's just – you don't know what it's like having someone do that to you. At least not like the way they did it to me. That's why … why it is so hard when people touch me, you know? But you don't do that to me Elliot, not anymore. And... and... I want you to hold me. I mean... How many times do I have to tell you? When you're around me, I feel different. That's what you do for me, that's how I feel, and… and… it's a good thing, you know?"

Jason paused and lifted their hands. "You know something else? Just you doing this, holding hands with me. I think sometimes, about if anyone tried this in school in America, they would be dead meat. Try it in front of your parents and... and... maybe it wouldn't be so bad, but – it's just not stuff guys do. I know that, and you know that – right? But here? Right now? This helps me, so much more than you know. It shows me how much you trust me, and I already know how much I trust you." He sighed. "I know - I have to tell you this, because I promised I would, but it - it just makes it easier." He laughed. "Kind of stupid, right? Really, fucking, stupid…"

Elliot shook his head. "No, Jase. It's not stupid at all. You don't see me letting go, do you?" He reaffirmed his grip until Jason smiled back at him.

"It's like you said earlier tonight – it's like we're connected, this thing we have." Jason had to pause to wipe his eyes with the back of his free hand. "I guess you want to hear what's left, right?"

Elliot didn't hesitate. "Finish it, Jase. Don't hold back on me now."

Jason paused to steady himself. "They both tried it Elliot. One would hold me down and then the other would, you know... They would fold me up, you know, bend me over and everything, and they would try it. I tried to scream, to yell, something ... but they had this stinky rag or something shoved up in my mouth. But anyway, I was – I was too young, I guess. Too small, or something. They couldn't do it at first, neither one of them. They got really pissed about it, too. 'Stretch him!' one would say. You get the idea. I tried to fight, but they started beating on me more and... and... then one of them found this – thing."

Jason was openly crying now, and Elliot began having second thoughts about making him go through this. He was about to say something when Jason looked up and shook his head. "I guess it was a stick or … or something. I honestly don't know what it was. I just know they shoved it up inside me – deep. It was rough, and… it just hurt, it really... h-hurt, like hell, you know? They… they just shoved it up inside and I screamed. They laughed about it and... and they twisted and wiggled it around until I like give up or something. After that, well... then they got what they were after. They pulled it out and then one of them... They just started doing it to me, taking turns, over and over again. They got their dicks up inside of me and did it, and dumped all their shitty, stinking, fucking jizz inside. They did it over and over, Elliot. I think I passed out or something, because I don't know how long it went on, really. It hurt, but I was beyond screaming anymore, you know? There was no one around to hear me, and they had me in one of those, like, hidden spots and everything. I remember how sick it was, how they stunk, and how I felt. "

Jason looked to the ceiling. He had stopped crying, but the look of anguish was still there. "And I remembered, Elliot. I remembered thinking about what that old man had kept calling me all the time. All the times he was putting me down, and yelling, and calling me a filthy, stinking whore. And here these guys were doing that to me, like that's what I was. A whore... a boy whore... and... and ... I wanted to die then. The rag came out, and I honestly begged for them to just kill me and get it over with, you know? It's what the old man wanted me to do, he wanted me to die or... something... and I just, I didn't care anymore, you know?"

"That bastard was only trying to mess with your head Jason. You know that, right?" Elliot finally exclaimed. He, too, was shedding a few tears while he listened, imagining how terrible it must have been. He could no longer resist, now. Withdrawing his hand, he wrapped it around his cousin, pulling Jason close, holding him as tight as he could. "Don't think any of that shit was true, Jase. Come on now, please?"

Jason wiped at his eyes with the back of his hands. "Don't you get it Elliot? They fucked me. The bastards royally screwed me like all hell was turned loose. They didn't care, they just did it, like, for hours I guess. I don't know how long it went on, but that isn't the point. And… When they were done, they laughed about it. I can remember hearing them laugh as they pissed on me, too. Then they just left me there, in those bushes, like I was nothing. I remember laying there, I was bleeding, because there was blood everywhere, and... and I was hurting so bad. Not just my ass, but the rest of me, too, where they had beat me and everything. I couldn't move, I couldn't think – they shoved that rag back in my mouth, so I couldn't yell or anything either." Jason sighed deeply, laying his head on Elliot's shoulder. "Afterwards and everything, all I remember is laying there, cold. And I thought I was going to die. Then it stopped. All of it sounds like it was some fucking dream I guess, but … I know it was real, Elliot. I know it because of all the pain that went with it. Some of it still hasn't gone away, you know?"

"God, Jase! I'm so sorry," was all Elliot could think of saying. He held Jason close, and there they sat in silence. Elliot was at a loss, unsure of what to do, or what to say. To his surprise, however, Jason seemed to calm down considerably and recompose himself. It wasn't long before his cousin sat back.

"That's... that's about all of it," Jason surrendered. "That's what gives me my nightmares and... and..." He didn't finish the sentence, but there wasn't much more he could tell. They both understood the price he had just paid in letting it all come out. "Last night, yeah, I felt you. I felt you get horny and… and yeah, it brought some of that back to me. Maybe it made me nervous, but... Elliot? You aren't them. You ... you're someone I can feel, someone I know who cares. I won't lie to you, it's been hard to deal with this stuff, and... and... When you held me, like we did last night, I… I just, it was just the opposite. They put me through hell, but you put me through the opposite, I think. You gave me something I haven't felt in so long. Ever since I've been here, you guys have given me this… this feeling..." Jason paused, unable to continue.

"It's okay," Elliot finally offered when he found his voice.

"But no, it's not okay," Jason objected. "I mean, n-now you know. I – I just, I'm not afraid of you Elliot. After my first few nights here, I've never been afraid of you. I just... Like I said, it's kind of hard, you know? I mean, I meant what I said. I'm like you: I feel this thing growing between us and everything. I was happy that I could let everything happen last night the way that it did, you know? But – do you see now? Do you understand why it just takes me some time? It's got nothing to do with being naked with you, or you touching me or anything. And… and getting naked and all, it was just hard to think through that, because… because… and… I'll admit, I even kind of like it, you know, when we do some of that stuff. That's just you and me now, but... but – this? This is hard shit, and... it's not you, it's... and…"

Elliot almost started crying again. "SShhhh…" he tried to hush his cousin, feeling the anguish pouring out. "I wish I had known, Jase, honest! I wish anything that you would have told me to just back away or fuck off or something! I would have! I swear, I would have! I- I just, I had no idea!"

Jason took a deep breath, calming himself. "I know you didn't. Nobody knows, Elliot. You're the first person I've ever told. You're the first person who has even cared, you know?"

Elliot thought about it for a minute. "I'm glad you did, though. I'm glad you told me." Elliot eventually sat back and grabbed Jason's hand once more, locking fingers. "W-What happened next? How did you get out?"

"I don't know." Jason picked up the tale once more so he could finish it. "I mean, seriously, after laying there cold and naked, I don't remember anything afterwards. I passed out, I guess. Sometime later, I woke up in a bed at some hospital. There were all these bags of fluids and stuff, running into my arm. And there was this monitor thingy, showing my heart rate and stuff. There was this nurse there, and she told me that some lady and her son found me. They called 911 or something. The only thing the nurse knew was that, when they found me and got me to the hospital, somehow later they figured out who I was." Jason grunted. "There was this social worker, a different lady than before, but – she was just. Crap Elliot, it was like the rest of them. Why was I now her problem, you know? She didn't talk to me much, didn't even look at me. She just asked me a bunch of stupid questions about who I was, why did I run away, if I was having problems why I didn't come to them, or call. You know – the usual shit like that. But get this, the whole time we talked, she didn't take any notes or anything, and she just looked annoyed all the time. She – she didn't even give me time to answer, you know? She would ask something, then she just moved on to the next question. She didn't give a fuck, you know? When I realized that, I just gave up. I shut down, and eventually she did, too. I heard her telling someone outside that I was just being uncooperative. Yeah, right. She was the bitch, that's all."

"And?" Elliot whispered.

"They were all out to screw me, see? Maybe not up my ass, but you know what I mean. That's what it felt like, and I just didn't give a shit anymore. To all of them, I was just someone else's problem. Why did I have to create all this drama and everything, you know? Anyway…" Jason laughed. "That's the funniest thing. No one ever asked me, not once, about what happened in the park that night. It was like... like..." He laughed again, but then fell silent.

Hearing Jason's eerie laugh made Elliot feel uneasy. "Jason? I-"

"No, don't say anything Elliot. Look, I know how you feel, and you feel sorry for me and all that - but don't. It's one of the reasons I've told no one else about any of it. I don't want people feeling sorry for me. Your Dad called it something once, like a pity case, I think. I don't want other people seeing me like that, because it's humiliating. I've – I've been dealing with it, and I'm getting better, and a lot of it is because of you." Jason smiled. "You may be my cousin, but you're also my best friend. Maybe the only one I've really had in my whole life, you know? I don't know, but after what you told me tonight? I got this big lump in my throat and this feeling in my gut. You asked me the other night what's changed, remember? Well, I've changed. I've been getting better, and it's because I'm learning how much I can trust again. No…" He grimaced with a smirk. "Not like the naked stuff and all – well, maybe a little, but… I mean, I'm learning to like, teach myself how to trust again, on the inside."

Elliot smiled. "I know what you meant."

Jason laughed, then nodded. There was another stretch of silence that ensued, one where Jason was looking down to the floor, contemplating something. "I don't know, Elliot. I guess I'm still kind of screwed up in my head. Your Mom and Dad though, they've been great, you know? Your brother, too. But it's you Elliot: you're the one that's been doing everything that's made me feel better since I got here."

Elliot shook his head. "I haven't done anything, Jase, except push you on something I had no right to do."

Jason looked up. "You're wrong, Elliot. Remember what you said, about thinking I could be a stuck-up creep? Well, that's funny, because when I came over here I figured you guys would be like a bunch of stuck-up assholes, too. Just like you thought about me. I was worried you guys would try to make an English kid out of me or something, and I was going to have to learn to talk like you do, and everything." Elliot scoffed, but Jason hurried on. "I was ready to do it, you know? If it meant getting away from all that crap over there, I was willing to pay that price if I had to. Your Dad changed that though, almost from the beginning, when we were driving down here from the airport. He, like, reached inside of me, and he knew what I was afraid of and everything, you know? And then, you did, too. From the start, you told me to just be myself, remember?"

Elliot was still at a loss of words, so Jason took another deep breath. "Here's something else, too. You know, when they first told me they found you guys and when I learned I was coming over here, it was like, so cool and everything. Like I said, I knew I could leave all those fuckers behind. At least, I was hoping I could. Then they could take their fucking rules and sex and problems and everything and go to hell with it." He shook his head. "Sheesh, now you've got me swearing!"

"Sorry," Elliot replied sheepishly.

"Don't be. I was like, not sure how I would talk over here at all until you started swearing some." Jason grinned. "Meh, I don't know, I never really swore much before Dad died. He would always get after me and everything. Seems like since then though, well... At least now I don't have to feel so guilty about it, I guess." When he saw Elliot grin, he thought for a moment before continuing. "Elliot, I was getting away from all that crap, and probably for the first time in a long time I felt good about it, too. I mean, I was still scared, because I was like, jumping into something unknown again, right? I mean, about coming over here and everything. But don't you see? That first night I was here with you guys, it was scary at first, and ... and, when you told me you would be scared too, if you were me? I was like, 'Holy shit!' You guys did nothing wrong to make me feel that way, it was just first-time jitters and everything. And then I got a bed - a real bed, and then... and then..." He giggled. "Don't take this the wrong way, okay? But I was nervous about a lot of things, including sharing the same bed with you. I know I said it was okay, but I was telling myself, I'm not going back. If this is what I had to do, then I would do it – no matter what. Does that make sense? I would do anything, you know? It was just all so weird, and so different, but it wasn't wrong. You guys were nice to me, and you seemed to really care about me. It even showed how much you cared about each other, too. That was so different, see? But then we got in bed that night, and you said what you did to me, I felt better. I really did, and I think I slept that whole night – no dreams, no nothing."

"I'm glad," Elliot offered, whispering softly.

"I am, too. So, I'm dealing with it. It's not going to hang over me the rest of my life, I promise. But it ... it's like I keep telling you, it's taking me time I guess. I just – I need you, okay? I not afraid to tell you that. Along with everything else, just don't – don't hate me for it, okay? At least not right now..."

"Why would you think I'd hate you for it?" Elliot asked, confused.

"Because I got fucked, okay?" Jason exclaimed. "I got royally screwed and ... and... its messed with me and, and..."

"Stop, Jason!" Elliot responded with a firmness that made his cousin look at him in surprise. "I don't care about that stuff, honest. And for the record, you didn't get fucked – you got raped, okay? Bollocks, maybe you see it in some other weird, twisted way, or maybe Americans just view it differently. But over here? Rape is rape, and even guys like us, like me – WE don't consider it the same thing, okay? Yeah, I know, in some ways getting screwed is... well, I know, okay? But you got raped, and none of that is your fault. Besides, like I said, I don't care about that stuff, dude - what I care about is YOU and what's inside of you – I promise!"

Jason stared at Elliot, confused. "But-"

Elliot shook his head. "No! No buts Jason, I mean it. I don't care, get it? I honestly don't care whether you got naked with a hundred girls or guys and you screwed every one of them, or if they screwed you, okay? I mean this: I know you enough now to know better than that, but I don't care. Don't you see? Don't you hear me?" Elliot reached out and pointedly touched his cousin's chest. "I know what you have inside here now, okay? And I finally understand what's wrong, and... and... That's all I care about. It's all any of us care about, because we like you. We all love you." His voice fell to a whisper again. "I love you."

Jason studied that, and then sheepishly shook his head. "You're amazing, you know that?" he whispered.

Elliot smiled. "Not as much as you are. You're the amazing one. It's like you said, you've been in hell and somehow come back, alive. I don't think I could have done half as good as you did, if it had happened to me. And I'm the sex-crazed horny one, I think. You know?" Jason smiled at the attempt at humor, but then said nothing afterwards.

There was a silence that enveloped them both. The more they opened to each other, the more Elliot realized how much they were alike. Elliot's words had made Jason stop and consider that, maybe, he was being too hard on himself. Jason had already come a long way, getting a lot of his feelings off his chest. His fears and uncertainties were calmed now, perhaps by just the knowledge he didn't have to carry it alone any longer.

Elliot did, however, feel torn inside. He knew he was young and inexperienced with this stuff. He had no idea what to do now, or what to say that would help Jason, and that made him feel worse than before. He had expected something, probably the abuse - but not like what Jason confessed. No wonder his cousin had the nightmares, Elliot thought. No wonder he shirked at all the little hints, and even the attention Elliot had been giving him. Elliot saw now what he had been missing. All the signs had been there, he just hadn't been experienced enough to see them. "Thanks Jase. Thanks for telling me all of this."

Jason shrugged. "I just hope it doesn't bug you now. I honestly thought I would be able to hide it, to keep it all in and just, you know, deal with it."

"Yeah, well, maybe that's a sign," Elliot replied. "You know, about how much we're finally getting to know each other. I mean, maybe it just took this long to let it sink in. Maybe it just took this long for you to realize there are people here who really care about you."

Jason smiled. "Yeah, maybe... I've always known you guys care, though. Just sometimes, knowing it and making my heart believe it, well…"

Elliot hesitated. He knew what he needed to say now, as plain and simple as if it were writing on the wall. Somehow, he felt Jason wouldn't want to hear it, though. "Umm, Jase?" Elliot began, timidly.

"Yeah?"

Elliot took a deep breath. "Listen, I promised I'll never tell anyone a thing, and I'll keep my promise. You don't have to worry about that."

Jason smiled. "I know. I told you, I trust you."

Elliot smiled back nervously. "Good, but then at least hear me out on this, okay? I have to say it at least once, and I kind of figure you're not going to like it. You still have to hear it though, from me, okay?"

Jason briefly stiffened visibly, but then relaxed and nodded slowly. He already had a feeling where this was going to go.

"This kind of stuff dude, you really shouldn't keep it inside. You really should tell someone, maybe my Dad or... please wait." Jason had begun to shake his head, so Elliot plunged forward quickly. "Like I said, I know what you're thinking, okay? Just remember though, I told you I'd keep my promise, and I swear I will. But hear me out: this kind of stuff – it's like, eating away at you inside, and someone, or somebody who knows about how to deal with it, well... I mean, I hate seeing it hurt you so much inside, you know? I'm just saying Jase... At least think about talking to someone, okay?"

Jason surprised him by smiling. "I did; I talked with you."

Elliot felt a surge of pride within his chest. It was everything he could do to keep it in check for the moment. "Maybe... but then again, maybe after a while you'll feel better about talking with someone else. I know, maybe you won't – but promise me you'll at least think about it. You don't know how much I wanted to help, to take some of it away from you and everything. But – I can't. I don't know how. All I can do is just hang around, you know, be here." He sighed. "At least, if nothing else, promise to think about telling what happened with those old people. I mean, seriously, what if they get hold of another kid, and start that shit all over again, you know? You might be the only person who can at least get it stopped."

Jason stared at Elliot for a long time before responding. "I admit, I never thought of that," he replied slowly. Shaking his head, he looked again to the floor. "For me, it's enough. Just being here is enough, away from all of it. You know?" He understood, however, that what Elliot said made sense. "Okay, I trust you, so yeah – I promise I'll at least think about it. Just – don't push me on the rest, okay? I gave in, and I told you. I mean, that's got to be enough, for a while anyways. For right now, at least. Just don't push me on it."

"I won't, I promise." Elliot smiled in relief. "And Jase? I keep my promises man, I really do." Reaching out, he tugged on Jason's hand. This time he pulled and placed it over his heart. He started to speak again, but then decided instead to pull it under his shirt. He wanted Jason to feel him inside, a gesture he hoped would register the right way. "That's my heart, Jason. I promise I won't tell, but don't forget: you have to at least think about talking to someone, someday. Okay?"

Jason thought the gesture was unusual, but then he realized what Elliot was doing. It was for Jason, and Jason alone. "Okay," he whispered in reply. He could feel the telltale trace of a heartbeat underneath his fingertips. It calmed him. After a moment, he smiled. "So, what now?"

Elliot frowned, looking up at the clock. They still had at least a couple of hours to go, before anyone was due to return. There was a change in their mood, and he felt lighter considering the way the last couple of hours had gone. "I don't know... Kind of hard to top all of this, you know?" He giggled, but Jason knew what he was implying. Neither had counted on this happening, but both were now bound in such a way it couldn't have turned out any better.

They both sat still for several minutes, holding hands again, their fingers locked. Jason felt like he didn't want to let go, and Elliot made no attempts to pull away. As Jason mused, he thought a lot about what had just happened. Before long, a realization came to him. "You want to know something else?" When Elliot looked up at him, he continued. "You said I needed to tell someone, and I did - I told you. And guess what? I really do feel better about it now, you know?" He wrinkled his nose. "It's like this weight on me... it's gone right now. I don't know, it just – it just feels different." He squeezed his hand again. "And of all the people I know, I'm glad it was you."

Elliot smiled at the revelation. "Does that mean I can hug you now? Again?" They both burst out laughing, but although Jason hesitated, he eventually pulled Elliot around so that he was laying halfway within his lap. Grabbing hold, they embraced so close with one another that Jason could feel something change between them, something warmer and inviting. It was a feeling of peace and calmness, one that had been seeping into him all night long. Only this time, it was multiplied exponentially.

"You told me and I told you – anytime, right?" Jason whispered.

"Yep," Elliot replied, his own voice soft.

Jason grinned. "Good, you've got holding duty again tonight, buster. When we go to bed, I mean."

Elliot giggled. "Hey now, I like to be held too, you know!"

Jason pulled back just far enough to whisper into Elliot's ear. "Then we'll hold each other."

"Damned straight we will!" Elliot replied, hugging tighter.

Both boys were quiet for over a minute, each lost in their own thoughts, hugging but relaxing in each other's embrace. "This feels so good," Elliot whispered.

Jason nodded, before starting to get an idea. It was one that, as he worked it out, surprised even him. At first, he just discarded it, but sitting here and holding Elliot so close, another feeling encompassed him so completely. After all this time, after all he had been avoiding it, Jason wondered to himself if he could do it now. Thinking back over the last couple of hours, even the last couple of days, he didn't feel like he had anything to hide anymore. And as the idea began to form up, he knew what he wanted to do, and how he wanted to do it. Pulling back with a mischievous look in his eyes, he addressed his cousin with a whisper. "I'm thinking about something we can do. Right now."

Elliot's eyebrow stretched upward. "Okay, what?" The reply was both friendly and warm. Jason glanced about at the floor and walls around them as he contemplated.

"I don't know, just.... I'm not sure if, like, you'd want to or anything, or..."

Elliot laughed. "Out with it!" he demanded, giggling.

Jason smiled.

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